Friday, 29 April 2011

The Tournament

UK DVD release date: 8th November 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 95 mins
Director: Scott Mann
Starring: Robert Carlisle, Kelly Hu, Ving Rhames, Ian Somerhalder
Genre: Action
UK distributor:  Entertainment in Video
Format: DVD/Blu Ray
Country: USA

Every seven years in a random unsuspecting city somewhere in the world thirty of the world’s top assassins come together for the ultimate game of sudden death.  Twenty nine corpses later and one walks away with $10 Million.

It should all be straight forward until French assassin and free runner Anton Bogart (Sebastian Foucan) removes his tracker [which is surgically implanted into all contestants] and drops it into a cup of coffee which is quickly consumed by half priest / half alcoholic Father MacAvoy (Robert Carlisle) in a Middlesborough cafĂ©.  Unwittingly MacAvoy has entered into a competition he is ill-equipped he deal with.  Reigning champ Joshua Harling played by Ving Rhames (Out of Sight, Con Air) is back not only to win the tournament again but to avenge the murder of his wife.  The only problem is he doesn’t know which one of his fellow contestants pulled the trigger.

The closest comparison to The Tournament would be Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale as they are both about thinning the herd through the use of skill, instinct and large semi automatic to automatic firearms.  The difference between the two is that where the Battle Royale programme was a way of lowering the population of an overburdened nation there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of logic behind this tournament.  After all, if these are the thirty best assassins in the world then eliminating all but one is ultimately weakening their profession.  If you can put this major problem to one side then you will have side stepped one of the biggest problems with The Tournament but it’s a big one and is likely to reoccur every time you see the difficulties that MacAvoy is dealing with and the brutality of the world he’s been introduced to.  Surely the world’s best assassins could make $10 Million from a couple of jobs therefore making the pot for this life of death tournament a little skimpy.

Tellingly, the script needs a little bit of work as aside from this hole in narrative logic there’s some issues with some seriously under developed characters.  Most of them the film gets away with as their either not long for this world or minor side characters but some of them are serious issues.  Kelly Hu (X-Men 2, The Scorpion King) is excellent as Lai Lai Zhen, the triad’s number one contract killer and sells the physicality of the role perfectly.  Not only does she keep up with her male counterparts but her conviction cleans the floor with them.  The problem is one of characterization, there’s little real reason given for her participation in the tournament and you always only really care about her surviving because she has taken Father MacAvoy under her wing.  Carlisle is excellent in his role as the troubled priest; he has the expressive face to carry a deeply tortured performance to the screen and delivers so much more than what was on the page.  It’s a genuine coup for the film to have such a brilliant character performer in such a crucial role.  At no point does he disappoint.  Rhames could, on the other hand, take notes from the Trainspotting star.  He has been an excellent supporting actor over the years with Dark Blue and the Mission: Impossible franchise but comes across as one tone and somewhat lazy in The Tournament and as [arguably] the central character is meant to be the one who sets the tone and drives the action forward but lacks any intensity or interest leaving his narrative wandering around aimlessly.  At the other end of the spectrum is Ian Somerhalder (Lost, The Vampire Diaries) as Miles Slade the psychopathic hitman of the piece.  Where Ving has barely got out of bed to deliver most of his performance Somerhalder acts with a capital A.  What was, probably, envisioned as a menacing and unstable killer in the mold of a Steve Buscemi or Robert Knepper is camped up to the point where panto dames are shuttering.  Rather than playing his character insane, Somerhalder plays mad…two parts camp to one part mad and in doing so is more of an irritation than a menace.

The stand out [physical] performance is Sebastian Foucan (as Anton Bogart) from Casino Royale fame.  Ever since District 13 leaped into the public eye the action genre has been flirting with the urban art parkour and even though it always looks a little out of place it, mainly thinking Live Free or Die Hard (Die Hard 4.0), it seems to work really well in The Tournament.  The fire fight and chase sequence between Father MacAvoy, Lai Lai & Sebastian in the police car is both original and exciting as the ‘Running Man’ puts his body through the ringer for some truly brilliant moments of action.  Likewise his double decker gun fight with Lai Lai is a work of art and one that could only be crafted by such a physical and fearless performer.  The toilet confessional between the Father and Lai Lai represents a nice change of pace and plays nicely on a couple of different levels and offers some much needed exposition in a narrative that’s been largely sustained on adrenaline. 

There are some truly exciting things in and about The Tournament, Scott Mann’s handling behind the camera shows us that he is potentially a serious player in the cinematic tournament as he’s able to balance an ensemble cast narrative against the action genre’s need for one central protagonist.   Unfortunately there are some serious issues with the film including character development, narrative holes and one of those moments you unfortunately see coming a mile off that’s intended to be a big surprise.  Fans of Battle Royale or The Condemned starring Stone Cold Steve Austin should give it a watch as the main issues will probably be similar in all films but if you’re looking for something a little more than guns and ammo you should probably try another competition.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The American

UK DVD release date: 4th April 2011
Certificate: 15
Running time: 101 mins
Director: Anton Corbijn
Starring: George Clooney, Paolo Bonacelli, Violante Placido
Genre: Thriller/Drama
UK distributor:  Universal
Format: DVD/Blu Ray
Country: USA

When the word came down that Anton Corbijn was following up his acclaimed documentary on Joy Division (Control) with an adaptation of Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman there was a heavy balance of excitement and bemusement from cinephiles alike. 

The American or Jack (George Clooney) as he’s more commonly known to the select few who interact with him is on high alert and looking to lay low after an attempt on his life in Sweden leaves him the target or wrath.  Killing his attackers and companion before fleeing to the sleepy town of Abruzzi in Italy Jack awaits word from his employer on his next move.  When faced with a choice of re-entering the world he has made his own and that of a potential future with a young prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) Jack walks a line that he’s never known before.

The first thing you will notice is how simply beautiful The American is, whether it’s the opening sequence in Sweden, the gloriously stylish tunnel opening credits scene or the gliding camera over the picturesque village this film is beautiful.  Corbijn’s vision is of a strong European style which, when overlapped on top of a distinctly American genre, channels comparisons to the work of Sergio Leone crossed with the almost eerie tranquility of Michelangelo Antonioni’s first English language feature Blowup.  In comparison to similar titles by American directors this film almost seems lazy in its confidence to tell its story in its own time.  One of the criticisms levied against The American is the narrative; most critics seem to take exception in that it’s not a very original story.  This is fair, it’s not.  An assassin lays low and after meeting a “hooker with a heart of gold” reconsiders his existence.  What is original however is everything else within this film.  As exciting set pieces go, most exist within the trailer there are multiple scenes that play out throughout the course of the film that are simply Clooney working at his kitchen table on his assignment or drinking coffee with the beats played out on his face or the absence of any real exposition.

Unsurprisingly for Corbijn the soundtrack is excellent, at least where it exists.  The opening theme after the initial shoot out in snowy Sweden is quite unlike what has come before it and what will follow.  Its life, colour and vibrancy all go to exhibit the metropolitan high profile world that Jack must avoid for the time being.  The moments of exposure for Jack, when on assignment, carry a slow and meticulously increase of the cinematic tension to the point where you’re almost thankful that the tradition running, shooting, exploding ‘hurrah’ is not present as the dramatic tension is almost unbearable as it is.  This tension is bottled as Corbijn’s mastery of the pace doesn’t allow audiences a moment to expel it and the simple but genius score is in every way as responsible for this as the performers on screen or the cinematography.

As a performer this is the most interesting time of George Clooney’s career.  Having grown out of his television days and the early problems of less than average roles in less than average films like One Fine Day, Batman and Robin and The Peacemaker, Clooney has not just matured as a performer but excelled in roles that are contradictory to his “star persona”.  Like Syriana, his Best Supporting Actor winner, The American is not a George Clooney film.  Women will not swoon during this offering.  Jack is lacking is all of the usual charisma that Clooney effortlessly brings to his roles, he has a cast iron serious streak running through him, is unemotional, lacks all sentiment and carries a hard threatening stare that almost tries to dissect those in conversation in order to work out how they tick.  At times in the film he states he’s not good with machines but that’s clearly not the case.  It’s other human beings he has issues with hence his reliance on prostitutes who will unemotionally sell a service.  Violante Placido (as Clara) has all the assets needed to save Jack from himself as her beauty and charm is more than enough to defrost even the coldest of hearts and is charming enough for both of them.  Usually the notion of “the girl” and how their cinematic presence is enough to change the direction [of someone so heavily set in their ways that it’s ritualistic] is something of a stumbling block as narratively you want to buy into it but realistically it jars with all the characterization that comes before.  It’s to the credit of Placido and Clooney that the relationship between Jack and Clara is not only believable but logical.  What starts as a business transaction leads Clara, for whatever reason, to respect Jack and eventually to love.  Likewise Clara’s love of life and charisma is understandably enough for Jack to question his path and in doing so open his heart not just to a new life but a ‘want’ for a new life.

The stand out supporting performs are that of Paolo Bonacelli (Father Benedetto) and Thekla Reuten (Mathilde).  Clooney cuts a menacing figure but Reuten has a quiet and un-menaced hardness in her performance that doesn’t even have to be referenced.  She’s a cold blooded killer, that’s evident and to refer to it or her gender is to undermine just how strong and commanding a performance this is.  Likewise Bonacelli as Jack’s attempted saviour highlights the absence of a guiding light during Jack’s formative years but even this light is less than beaming.  Riddled with flaws and contradictions Bonacelli’s Father Benedetto is simply an older version of Jack at the other end of the spectrum and is the unacknowledged mirror in Corbijn’s narrative.

There are simply not enough words to describe just how wonderful it is to see an intelligent drama like The American.  Nay saying reviews have pointed to the fact that it’s too slow and lacking in any suspense but perhaps they were expecting a different film or were watching the wrong film as The American is packed with tension and intrigue.  The action plays out in brinks and micro gestures and if Roberto Rossellini made “assassin” films he would make one like The American only Corbijn made it better.  Like Sergio Leone, Corbijn has made a distinctly American genre film but with the values and sensibilities of a European art house director and in doing so raises so many interesting points of discussion and debate about honour and fate.  Corbijn's The American is without debate the most beautiful, thrilling and patiently intelligent film of the year.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

5x5 Grindhouse Style

Frank Wolff

You'll probably know Frank Wolff either from Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West or from the works of Roger Corman was a big big name in the Giallo circuit and prolific at that.  Here's five 5 star films to widen your knowledge of the original Mr. Wolff!

1. Blood River
Playing alongside Terence Hill and the excellent Bud Spencer in this blood soaked Spaghetti Western about a train heist.

2. Anyone Can Play
A supporting role in this Ursula Andress vehicle allows Frank to showcase a softer side of his character, even if it's not for the full duration of the movie.

3. The Lickerish Quartet
Anthology drama with a naughty side, amateur blue movies, doppelgänger and fantasties all around with Silvana Venturelli. 

4. The Great Silence
It featured in the list of 100 Other Films to watch before you Die and it's here again, rightfully so.  Wolff as the Sheriff alongside Klaus Kinski in the tale of a mute cowboy in the blizzard of 1899.

5.  Sequestro di persona / "Kidnapping"
Franco Nero and Charlotte Rampling as the native and tourist in Sicily who are kidnapped.  The jewel in Gianfranco Mingozzi's contribution to cinema.

This under appreciated and, largely, man of the supporting actor clothe has an entire back catalogue of titles were he delivers far beyond what's on the page.  Watch and love!

Next you...

< Roosevelt Grier >

The Following Takes Place Between 2011 and 2012

Events occur in real time.

Through the first decade of the twenty first century we heard that 195 times.  Over the course of nine years and eight seasons of the real time thriller we witnessed Jack Bauer foil a political assassination, stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated in Los Angeles, prevent the outbreak of a deadly virus, prevent one hundred nuclear power stations from melting down, stop a corrupt President, stop five suitcase nukes from being detonated, prevent a private military company from seizing control of the presidency with the use of a biological agent and save the life of a Middle Eastern President preventing the collapse of the most important peace talks the world have seen.  So what finally bested the one man military force and when can we expect to see him again?

In 2008 after a weaker than normal Day Six, a writers strike and the dozen upon dozen of rewrites to finally get Day Seven in some sort of order it was announced the 24 was going to neutralise a real life enemy, climate change.  Within two years of this announcement with production costs rising, their commitment to being carbon neutral and the network ratings down from the peak of Day Five, Fox managed what no other could they stopped Jack Bauer.  There was talk of the show being sold to another network, HBO though favourites for many fans would have been immediately out of the running as the production costs per episode of 24 were far greater than anything they had.  NBC seemed extremely keen, they had just saw their crown jewel Heroes fall apart due to the writers strike two years earlier and never recover but Fox's estimation of what 24 and Jack Bauer were worth compared to the number of seasons the show arguably had left in it meant the NBC were effectively priced out of the market.  The end was in sight for all on board the real time thriller that re-invented and re-invigorated television in a way not thought possible previously.

Since Day Two when Jack Bauer came in from the cold, reluctantly stepped back into the breach after the death of his wife Teri and went about doing what he does best they have been talking of 'The Movie'.  Put on hold until the end of Day Three to allow the makers of the show to concentrate on writing themselves out of trouble week in week out and then taking a back seat to the Playstation 2 game it looked more likely that we would see the film somewhere between seasons as, understandably, anytime they came up with a cool and interesting storyline they ended up sacrificing its film dream in order to keep the adrenaline pumping in the show.  By Day Five it was apparent the we were more likely than not going to have to wait for Bauer to finish up on the small screen before gracing the multiplexes, a pay off most fans were happy with and by the time came to the stumbling Day Six and the multiple false dawns that were the beginning of Day Seven the thought of 24 : The Movie was too remote to contemplate.  Most of us would be happy enough with the season actually being delivered and back to the standard of the Emmy award winning Day Five.

Where the writers strike played havoc with all other shows, Heroes, Lost, Supernatural and Prison Break all suffering weak seasons it was the saving grace of time that 24 needed.  In being able to rework the season it meant that Day Seven was moulded into a brilliant season opener that continued for twenty four episodes but it almost meant that fans were treated to a taste of things to come.  With an aborted plan of splitting the "long day" of season seven into two half days, twelve hours in Africa followed by plane journey and twelve hours in Washington D.C, it meant that the writers had a pre-built stand alone narrative and when Fox came calling for something to keep the fans interested until January 2009 Jack Bauer was called into action in 24 : Redemption.  The feature length stand alone episode gave us a much needed fix of Mr. Bauer but also an insight into one possible direction that any 24 film may take.

We now sit in April, the first April since the year 2000 where there hasn't either been a season of 24 playing or one en route.  With the show finally finished now is the time for the film right?  Billy Ray (writer of State of Play) submitted his script for the feature film but with this taking place before Day Eight had finished there was always a chance that Howard Gordon and co would end up writing themselves into a corner before having to take it a completely different direction in order to nip out and keep the clock ticketing for twenty four episodes.  To their credit they always stated that they loved his script but they would write the show to suit the show and not the potential script.  In the end Jack Bauer fled in a different direction to Billy Ray's screenplay leaving him in the position of needing to rewrite it.  The fans would have to wait a little longer.  Longer still when Fox announced they had rejected the rewritten Billy Ray script and that the 24 film was going into hiatus.  This is a joke right?  How can they manage to make two unbelievably woeful Sex and the City films but the 24 team are stuck in pre-pre-production hell?  

Kiefer Sutherland has stated that the film will be happening but with Howard Gordon unaware of any information it seemed more out of hope than any concrete information that could be delivered to calm the now anxious fans.  More good news would follow with confirmation that Tony Scott was interested in the project. As a fan of the show I'd like to see either Jon Cassar (the main director for six years) or Stephen Hopkins (director of the pilot and majority of season one) take the helm for the big screen but that's purely out of sentiment and all that Hallmark nonsense that we're subjected to.  In actuality Hopkins has had little association since 2001 and Cassar is off with other projects and had left the show at the end of Day Seven.  The truth is if the director of Man on Fire wants to come on board and show the world that anything John Creasy can do Jack Bauer can do better is alright with me...and I dare say more fans of the show.  It's been stated, and would make absolute sense after the ending of the series, that the film would somewhere between Die Hard and The Fugitive seeing Jack Bauer take on a new threat with the United States and Russian governments hot on his heels for his actions in New York city.  Now apparently there's confirmation, from Brian Grazer (Executive Producer) via Twitter that 24 will be with us in 2012, that produciton (not writing or discussion but actual production) will begin in January 2012 with Kiefer confirming that it will be on screen by the end of the year.  Thinking Christmas '12 might be worth pencilling on my calendar.

The biggest question surrounding the film is not necessarily what it's about.  It's Jack Bauer after all, there's only many things it can be about and a gentle remake of Robert Rossellini's The Night is not one of them...things are going to explode.  The biggest question is what kind of 24 universe will we be treated to?  Redemption was very much Jack's story; with the exception of Powers Booth (departing President Noah Daniels) and Peter MacNicol (Tom Lennox) there was no other recognisable face from the land of 24.  No Chloe O'Brien, no Tony Almeida, not even a Bill Buchanan.  The biggest problems with some of the seasons of 24 was it's over reliance in existing characters, the constant return of characters that have naturally been written out of the show only to return half way through the following season when it appears that the show is losing direction and focus.  On some occasions it was truly inspiring.  The return of Mike Novak was a work of brilliance from Gordon and co as it led to his wonderful working relationship with President Logan and Martha in Day Five but in others, like the return of Mandy or Milo Pressman for instance lends nothing to the narrative.  The reason why Redemption worked as well as it did with such a limited amount of time to establish characters and tell it's story is because it took Bauer, the audience and the narrative out of the comfort zone of the 24 universe.  I'm not saying that there should be no Chloe, we all love Chloe and her relationship with Jack is one of the best things to happen to the show and when looking back at her debut in Day Three is a wonderful surprise but it needs to be for the right reasons.  The return of Tony Almeida, not just to the show but from the dead, in Day Seven led to an interesting and extremely enjoyable season and had plenty of moments when you question motive but ultimately was somewhat fruitless as he and the storyline set up in the final moments of Day Seven was completely discarded.

It seems appropriate that in the 24 universe where there has never been enough time we now have nothing but time but if it means that they make something that is as good as twenty four episodes distilled into a two hour feature film then it's worth the wait.  I spent my twenties watching 24 and if they do it right could be spending my thirties enjoying the exploits of Jack Bauer on the silver screen.


Day One
The season's main plot revolves around an assassination attempt on Maryland Senator David Palmer, a candidate for the presidential nomination, on the day of the California primary. The central character is Jack Bauer, a former Delta Force operator who is the Director of the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) in Los Angeles. Bauer becomes professionally as well as personally involved when his wife Teriand daughter Kim are kidnapped by the people behind the assassination plot.

Day Two
Season Two is set 18 months after Season One. The season's main plot follows the work of now-President David Palmer and agentJack Bauer to stop terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. Introduced into the situation is Kate Warner, a woman who ends up getting vital information related to CTU's mission.

Day Three
Day 3 sees CTU deal with a deadly virus threat that would be released in Los Angeles. We again see the return of Jack’s nemesis Nina Myers just as he is trying to overcome a heroin addiction after his undercover operation with Ramon and Hector Salazar, as others feel he still has not gotten over the death of wife Teri at the end of the first season. Jack has a new protege in tow, Chase Edmunds, but things take a turn for the worst when it is revealed Chase is seeing his daughter Kim, and it causes tension among the three of them.

Day Four
Season Four is set 18 months after Season ThreeJack is now working for Secretary of Defense James Heller after being fired by CTUdue to his heroin addiction. As the day begins, he gets caught up in an elaborate terrorist plot which involves both men and the daughter of Heller, Audrey Raines, who doubles as her father's chief policy assistant and Jack's lover. Jack is reinstated as CTU Director of Field Operations by Erin Driscoll, the Chief Director of CTU and the woman who fired him, who may have realized it was a mistake to remove him in the first place.

Day Five

Season Five is set 18 months after Season Four.
After the events in Season Four, Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer is now working as a day-to-day laborer at an oil refinery under the alias "Frank Flynn" in Mojave, California. Jack is renting a room north of Los Angeles from Diane Huxley, a single mother, and her 15-year-old son Derek.
Season Five is supposed to be a monumental day in Charles Logan's presidency. He is scheduled to sign an anti-terrorism alliance treaty with Russian President Yuri Suvarov at his retreat in Hidden Valley, California. This is believed to be the motive behind most of the day's events, as the Russian-separatist terrorists (presumably Chechen, although this is never stated explicitly) who carry out the day's attacks believe the treaty will increase the suffering of their people.

Day Six

Season Six is set 20 months after Season Five. Show designers acknowledge that they avoid the use of dates in order to have the show remain in a "perpetual now."[3]
After the events in Season Five and over the last 11 weeks before Day 6, the United States has been targeted coast-to-coast in a series of suicide bombings. A man named Abu Fayed agrees to give the U.S. the location of Hamri Al-Assad, the supposed terrorist mastermind of these attacks, in exchange for former CTU Agent Jack Bauer with whom he has a personal grudge. As a result, President Wayne Palmer has negotiated the release of Bauer, who was illegally captured by Chinese Government Agents at the end of Day 5, under "high-price" terms.

On they day of the Presidential Inauguration, Jack Bauer finds himself in the midst of a bloody uprising in the small African nation of Sangala. He must risk his life to transport a group or orphans to the American Embassy and sacrifice his own freedom to ensure that they are evacuated out of the country and make it safely to America.

Day Seven
Following up on the harrowing events of the feature-length movie REDEMPTION, 24's full-throttle seventh series once again hurtles viewers back into the breathless pace of the programme proper, with all the fast-paced verve fans have come to expect from FOX's blockbuster action franchise. Federal Agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) returns from working alongside old friend Carl Benton at an underprivileged boys' school in war-ravaged Sangala, Africa, where he was forced to spring back into action after a heinous warlord kidnapped schoolchildren to be recruited as soldiers for a planned coup. Back in the States, Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) has been inaugurated as the country's first female president, which puts her family in danger. Soon after returning, Jack discovers that the terrorists who have breached the government's computer database infrastructure may be the same ones behind the Sangala incident.

Day Eight
Set in New York City, "Day Eight" unfolds amidst the shadows of the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations as President Allison Taylor (Jones), alongside new chief of staff Rob Weiss (Chris Diamantopoulos), negotiates international security with Omar Hassan (Anil Kapoor), a determined Middle Eastern leader visiting the U.S. on a peacemaking mission. As the new day begins, an upgraded CTU operates under the command of M.B.A.-schooled, razor-sharp head honcho Brian Hastings (Mykelti Williamson), who supervises quirky Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub), expert data analyst Dana Walsh (Katee Sackhoff) and systems analyst Arlo Glass (John Boyd). 

Sunday, 24 April 2011

5x5 Grindhouse Style

Pam Grier

Pam Grier is the face and body of the blaxploitation movement.  Whether it's Coffy, Foxy Brown or even Jackie Brown  she has all the spirit and tenacity that encapsulates the era and the cinema.  Here's five 5 star films starring Pam that will surely leave you wanting more.

1. Women in Cages
Think Midnight Express but bustier, this film has all the action that exploitation cinema has to offer and is one of the earilest outings for Pam.

2. Black Mama, White Mama
Two female prisoners, chained together and on the run.  Whether it's Grier or Margaret Markov this film packs a hard fisted punch.

3. The Package
Taking up a supporting role in this action thriller about a military prisoner on the run starring Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones.  One definitely worth watching.

4. The Big Bird Cage
One of the best partnerships in cinema, Grier and director Jack Hill team up to tell the story of two mercenaries who engineer a prison break from the outside with Hill's usual amount of flesh on display. 

5. Bucktown
Grier and Fred Williamson in a crime thriller about the undesirables who can suck a man and his business dry...if the man will let them.  Fortunately for the drama he won't!

If the closest you've come to the work of Pam Grier before is Mars Attacks then you will not only find these titles absolutely enjoyable but you'll fall in love with the spirit of the cinema's era.

Next up...

< Frank Wolff >

The Vanishing / Spoorloos

UK DVD release date: 9th April 2003
Certificate: 12
Running time: 107 mins
Director: George Sluizer
Starring: Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege
Genre: Thriller
UK distributor:  Nouveaux Pictures
Format: DVD
Country: Holland/France

George Sluizer joined a short list of directors in 1993 that have remade their own films when he helmed the Hollywood adaption of The Vanishing starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland.  Where Alfred Hitchcock made his decision to re-do The Man Who Made Too Much due to his dissatisfaction of the final product; Sluizer’s decision was more to do with finding a larger audience for an atmospheric psychological thriller with little to save it from it’s own fatalistic tone.  Understandably the project was met with lukewarm reviews from the American press and was the second body blow to the Frenchman after having to abort Dark Blood due to the death of the film’s star (the late River Phoenix).

For those of you unfamiliar with The Vanishing, adapted from Tim Krabbe’s novel The Golden Egg, it tells the story of young lovers Rex (Bervoets) and Saskia (ter Steege) while on a cycling holiday and her untimely disappearance after a run of the mill tiff.  Three years on, with the search abandoned Rex begins receiving communications from Saskia’s kidnapper putting into a motion a game of cat and mouse, risk and trust and ultimately one of a test of true love.

As a young child this film made a lasting impression on me as it’s far more menacing and atmospheric than it’s certificate would suggest.  Unlike a lot of the thrillers from the late 1980’s and early 90’s the greatest frights and fears were not visual and graphic like the generic Freddy’s or video nasties but rather a cerebral slow boil that refuses to give you an inch of respite.  Returning to the film over twenty years later and age has done little to lessen that affect, if anything experience and knowledge of the film has only led to an even greater level of unease and claustrophobia.  Sluizer’s direction of this story is masterful, he has an understanding of the path of the film and uses his cinematography to show the audience the large and expansive world in which the film exists only to narrow off avenues of escape one by one.  The close relationship between camera and character, the use of staging, lighting and reflective surfaces laying the information on the screen and removing the need to have multiple shots to tell the story when one of two perfectly constructed shots will do the same thing.  It works brilliantly as there is rarely a moment after the disappearance of Saskia that the audience is left feeling un-menaced or claustrophobic from his craftsmanship.  Henny Vrienten’s score is pitch perfect, no pun intended.  His stylings are at times minimalistic and at others naturalistic weaving themselves into the core of the film, as all good scores should, becoming so much a part of the film that you tend to forget about the music.  For a composer on a film of this nature it must surely be a compliment to say that you’d didn’t notice the music.  This compared to Jerry Goldsmith’s heavy handed offering for the remake is a perfect example of how non diagetic sound should be; and is by far Vrienten’s best work.  Only Philip Glass’s score in The Thin Blue Line betters it in how audio in being subservient to visual can make the entire experience greater.

Bervoets (as Rex) plays to desperate, then grieving, then obsessed boyfriend wonderfully always flirting with a deeper darkness and tragedy that will threaten to destroy him and those around him but never tipping his hat too much.  At no point does his portrayal feel like it’s acting and he uses the stillness of the camera and quiet moments on screen to great thematic and characterising affect.  These moments are worth so much more inferred and are honestly heartbreaking at times.  Donnadieu as Raymond Lemorne (Saskia’s abductor) is menacing, terrifying and unlike the sort of movie villains you are treated to in thrillers.  A more realistic and fleshed out interpretation of a sociopathic human being similar to Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lector in Manhunter rather than Hopkins’ Academy Award winning panto baddie ala The Silence of the Lambs.  This is a man that is dangerous because he flies below the radar, he does not have any quirky character traits or incredible intellect, he is a normal everyday Joe.  The type of person you never suspect and is always described as “a nice quiet man” when being reported on the news and because of this is an absolutely frighteningly human.  Not one for grandstanding Donnadieu plays the restraint brilliantly and is, at the risk of generalizing, uncharacteristically French is him downbeat manner.  Johanna ter Steege is sparkling as Saskia, the most difficult and unrewarding of all the roles.  There isn’t enough screen time to completely flesh out your character in order for the audience to feel a connection with you but if you don’t manage that then the narrative loses all importance, as what’s an abduction film when you don’t care about the missing person?  It must have been nerve wrecking for her in her first film role to be the central character of the narrative and to have such pressure placed on her performance and to her credit has risen to the occasion.  Her beauty is an unconventional one but one so naturally conveyed on screen with her relaxed presentation that it shines through and you can immediately see what Rex finds attractive in her, making his loss that much greater.  There is a gang of supporting performers but make no mistake about it; this is a film solely about three people.
There are some short comings in the film, there are holes and collapses in narrative and causal logic respectively but the film has such a thick veil of tension from the moment Saskia disappears in the tunnel that you never get enough room to either pick up on them or refute the logic in some of the actions.  What the film has, which is lacking in the remake, is patience.  The audience do not get a chance to dictate the speed of the film and it is the loss of this control that’s ever present in the triadic narrative structure that is so distressing to a viewer.  It is this tension between film and viewer, coupled with the narrative, that Sluizer uses to wonderful affect in creating an almost Greek tragedy in modern day Holland.  In comparison the reworking for the U.S market and all the cinematic expectations that come from test screenings and market research led to a “reimagining” of the ending, a general obliteration of atmosphere and most tragically a loss of all things Greek as the notion of fated actions simply got lost in translation.  

The Vanishing has not lost any of its dark menace since it's release in 1988 and is a perfect example of the long lasting affects of the cerebral thriller and will leave you unnerved and going to bed with at least two lights on.

Friday, 22 April 2011

5x5 Grindhouse Style

Richard Conte

Richard Conte was a face you'd recognise more than a name, having starred in The Godfather and Ocean's 11, there's little doubt you know him...sort of.  Here's five 5 star outings to let you get to know Dicky a little bit more.

1. Naked Exorcism
Conte as the exorcist in this low budget Italian horror with a touch more eroticism than you'd expect from split pea soup.

2. The Violent Professionals
It made it on to the 100 Other Films list and it's worth a mention again.  Sergio Martino's vigilante cop vs. mafia movie is great.

3. Lady in Cement
Starring alongside good friend Frank Sinata as Tony Rome this detective flick has everything, strong story, excellent cast and a great director.

4. Big Guns
When hitmen want to retire from their jobs with the mob things can get complicated.  This retirement is no exception.

5. New York Confidential
Working for the mob, in love with the Don's daughter.  This will not end well and nor should it.  No guts no glory and all that.

Schooled!  Hopefully some, if not all these titles are to your liking and if not...forgeddaboutit!

Next up...
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